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The medium is the message.

"We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us. "

--Marshall McLuhan

When Marshall McLuhan wrote, "The medium is the message," he meant to emphasize the implications of any new technology (or medium) beyond the specific context of its use (or content of its message). The import of any medium inevitably goes beyond its contents to its effects on the work in which it is embedded. This message can be summarized, according to McLuhan and his son Eric, in four "laws of media": each new technology, or "extension of man," 1) intensifies or enhances something in the world, 2) makes something else obsolete, 3) retrieves some attribute of the past, and 4) at its extreme, reverses into a caricature of itself (McLuhan and McLuhan 1988).

These laws of media, which the McLuhans call "the tetrad," can help one to understand and, perhaps, respond constructively to the new medium. They can help make sense of trends that might otherwise appear contradictory or just plain chaotic. As one of many examples in their 1988 book The Laws of Media, the McLuhans analyze the mobile phone (Table 1). Some of the implications seem prophetic.

It is interesting to think about the tetrad in the context of digital media and their implications for the management of R&D (Table 2). Digital media increase the speed of everything; they increase the potential for products as services; and they intensify collaboration and openness. They may, as a result, make the traditional R&D lab obsolete and (perhaps) redefine our current notions of intellectual property. At the same time, they have the potential to empower small-scale innovators by providing access to information and opportunities to invent. At the extreme, digital media can flip into hype, creating innovation bubbles or leading to the equivalent of patents as spam.

There are indicators that all of these "messages" of digitalization are playing out, and many are reflected in this issue of RTM. Most notable, perhaps, is the potential demise of the R&D lab as we know it. In their article "The Hollywood Model," Alan Ayers and his coauthors propose that, in the future, R&D projects may be orchestrated in much the same way movies are produced today, with ad hoc teams brought together to undertake a clearly defined (often risky) endeavor. Digitalization makes this structure increasingly feasible by lowering the barriers to remote, distributed collaboration, increasing the ease with which talent can be accessed, and using public ratings systems to evaluate performance. In this model, R&D directors become producers and talent gets paid by the project (perhaps with residuals). Without digitalization of both coordination and the underlying activities (design, project management, staffing), this kind of approach would not be possible.

A different trend that may have some of the same results for R&D labs is innovation through contests and user communities. In this issue's Conversations article, Karim Lakhani of Harvard University posits that R&D will be increasingly externalized to crowds. He has rigorously studied the processes for conducting contests and building innovation communities, and he has demonstrated quantitatively that they achieve faster, better, and cheaper results--when approached with the necessary care. He expects the future of innovation to include both "born open" companies, like Quirky, and hybrids, like NASA or Google, that combine an evolution of the corporate R&D model with aggressive use of crowds.

Other aspects of conventional R&D are likely to be intensified by digitalization. Familiar to all is the increased speed required in new product development. Digitalization intensifies this by enabling design and simulation to take place in a digital space, cutting development cycles and enabling work around the clock. One consequence is intensifying competitive pressures and a proliferation of product variants and customization options. In a trend with wide-reaching implications, digitalization is also embedding information not only in the production process but in the products themselves (the Internet of Things). In the extreme, this leads to products as services (servitization) and breaks down traditional barriers among players in the value chain. This effect (or "message") and its ramifications are discussed in "Identifying Tensions in the Servitized Value Chain," by Jamie Burton and coauthors. In their study, the authors examine the changes required throughout a value chain to manage the tensions associated with implementing an information-enabled, services-led strategy.

One aspect of digitalization is the Internet of Things, and the digitalization of everything that it implies. All that data creates huge opportunities for R&D. An IRI Research group studying big data has developed a primer mapping how big data is likely to affect innovation and R&D management. Greg Holden, IRI's staff writer, summarizes the work for this issue. Included is a definition of the attributes of big data as well a discussion of its implications for R&D management.

Finally, in this issue's Innovation C-Scape, Siegfried Russwurm, CTO of Siemens, discusses the imperative to digitalization for a 100-year-old industrial firm and describes what it takes to create the cultural changes required to take advantage of exciting new opportunities, without losing the company's heritage of innovation in physical products.

These articles are all indicators of important and inexorable shifts in R&D, all with digitalization at their root. McLuhan's tetrad can be a useful tool for making meaning from the apparently chaotic signals. As the issue illustrates, one new technology (or medium) can have multiple effects, not all of which pull in the same direction or at the same pace. It can be tempting to look at one trend (or message), perhaps one that is less provocative or disruptive to your work, and focus on that. Considering trends through the lens of the tetrad, however, can help combat this tendency, opening the way to a more holistic view of what is going on. It might even identify implications that have yet to create ripples on the pond.

McLuhan once said, "Truth is whatever upsets the applecart." We hope that you find articles in this issue provocative, perhaps a little disturbing to your current way of thinking, and helpful as you navigate R&D in the context of the ever-evolving messages of digitalization.

Jim Euchner is editor-in-chief of Research-Technology Management and vice president of global innovation at Goodyear. He previously held senior management positions in the leadership of innovation at Pitney Bowes and Bell Atlantic. He holds BS and MS degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Cornell and Princeton Universities, respectively, and an MBA from Southern Methodist University.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2016.1209068


McLuhan, M., and McLuhan, E. 1988. The Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
TABLE 1. Tetrad: The mobile phone (adapted from McLuhan
and McLuhan 1988)

Enhances                      Obsoletes

Interpersonal communication   Phone booths
Accessibility                 Privacy and anonymity
Response time                 Isolation and the home

Reverses (into)               Retrieves

Letters                       Acoustic space
"The Sender is Sent"          Tribal culture

TABLE 2. Tetrad: Digitalization and R&D

Enhances                       Obsoletes

Speed of product development   R&D lab
Proliferation of products      Owned IP
Collaboration                  Mass production
Openness of IP
Product as a service

Reverses                       Retrieves

Innovation bubbles             Lone inventors
Patents as spam                Innovation contests
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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Comment:The medium is the message.(FROM THE EDITOR)
Author:Euchner, Jim
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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